"Cocodrilos", lithograph, 1974.
by Mario Cutajar
(The Remba Gallery, West Hollywood)
An exhibition of 17 lithographs by Leonora Carrington is a rare opportunity
to examine firsthand the graphic work of one of the very few women artists
associated with the Surrealist movement. While Carrington has had numerous
shows in New York and in Mexico, where she has lived since 1943, this is
a rare exhibition appearance in Los Angeles.
Born in 1917 into an upper-middle-class English family, Carrington was headstrong and difficult as a child. At the age of nine, while attending the first of two convent schools, she de- cided she wanted to become a saint and acquire the power of levitation. However, her ambition, behind which one easily discerns a childish wish to be special and rise above the adults who ruled, or tried to rule her, failed to make her behavior more saint-like, and over the next eight years she managed to get herself expelled from one school after another. Her interest in art was kindled by a nine month stay at Miss Penrose's Academy in Florence, where she discovered the grotesque art of the middle ages.
Carrington's mother had hopes that her unruly daughter would marry a royal, but Leonora's debut at court in 1934 merely confirmed her lack of enthusiasm for high society. After much pleading and wrangling, her parents reluctantly agreed to allow her to study art. While studying with Amedee Ozenfant a classmate introduced her to Max Ernst, whose picture Deux enfants menaces par un rossignol, reproduced on the cover of Herbert Read's book on Surrealism, had earlier left a deep impression on her. Ernst and Carrington became lovers and she ran away to Paris to live with him.
Their bliss lasted two years, until the outbreak of the war, and Ernst's internment as an enemy alien. During these years Carrington, enjoying the freedom and encouragement she found in France, came into her own as an artist. The German invasion forced her to flee France and eventually to settle in Mexico, where she found a landscape and culture that nurtured her facination with the supernatural even as marriage and the birth of her two sons kept her feet firmly planted on the ground.
In Mexico Carrington became the 'witch' her mother had warned her she would become if she was not careful, a transformation aided by her close friendship with the painter Remedios Varo, a woman who shared Car-rington's enthusiasm for the occult. Recognition as an artist came slowly and followed her 1948 solo show at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York.
The lithographs in the current show date from 1974 and fall into two categories. Ten of them are costume designs for a New York production of The Dybbuk, a Hassidic tale of a woman possessed by the spirit ('dybbuk') of her dead lover whose theme fits perfectly the Surrealist cult of obsessive love and the magical transformations it is capable of bringing about. These lithographs display Carrington's draughtsmanship at its most refined and also reveal an ability to achieve chromatic richness with limited means.
The other seven are a great deal more fanciful, and also more loosely drawn. They conjure a menagerie of strange beasts and pregnant, but ultimately hermetic, narratives. Real happiness, Freud once remarked, comes from realizing a childhood wish. What Carrington wished for as a child, to possess the magical powers of a saint, she was able to realize, at least symbolically, by becoming an artist. The image of a woman riding a magic carpet in Cocodrilos, passing over the toothy snouts of three fierce beasts confined in a pond, suggests that Carrington found a way to levitate after all.